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Forests and People - Victims in Burma

TEAK and other hardwoods that the West and Japan import from Thailand are tainted on two counts. First, most of the trees come from Burma, where Thai companies log without forestry regulations. They will, within three or four years, permanently destroy what was until recently one of the world's most pristine jungles. Second, profits from the teak go directly to Burma's military junta, whose human rights violations and suppression of democracy have attracted world attention.

The profits give the junta funds for its recently invigorated campaign against the Karen people of southeast Burma. Since this human and environmental destruction is fed by the teak market, an embargo on teak exported from Thailand would help limit the damage. All Burmese teak goes through Thailand, where most of it is either made into furniture or exported in raw form.

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Approximately 20 percent of Thailand's original rain forest is left. Though an official ban on the logging of virgin forest exists, it is not strictly enforced. Still, illegal logging and plantations in Thailand can't meet the demands of foreign markets, so most Thai logging companies work in Burma, where the government doesn't have the means to harvest the trees itself.

Standing among tons of logs waiting to be processed in a furniture factory in Northern Thailand, I asked my guide where they all came from. "Burma," he replied tersely, as though wishing to avoid the subject. "Who cuts it?" brought an exaggerated smile and an invitation to tea in the exhibition area.

Almost all Thai logging companies are owned either wholly or partly by military officers or their relatives. The Burmese government sells lumber concessions to these companies without restrictions on methods or tree size. This encourages loggers to use the cheapest and most destructive methods, devastating large areas for only a few trees.

Burma's junta is attracted to the quick cash and foreign currency and shows no interest in "minor forest products," such as resins, rattan, nuts, and fruits, which are less damaging and more profitable in the long run.

Under the current situation, the jungle will not rejuvenate since both old and young trees are taken and the undergrowth is destroyed in the process, leaving the terrain vulnerable to erosion.

The junta is using profits from lumber concessions in its augmented campaign against the Karen and seems intent on uprooting them in this or the next dry season. Along with a host of other human rights violations, the junta is currently enslaving its own people to carry newly bought munitions to the edges of the Karen conflict.

Whether incidentally or intentionally, the land cleared by lumbering makes movements easier for the military.

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The Karen live in southeast Burma, along the Thai border. For years they have kept the junta out of the region, which besides being their home is also an area where Thai loggers have easiest access to lush timberland. The Karen "guerrilla camps" that the junta is hoping to overrun consist of schools, temples, homes, and farms as well as base camps and training grounds. The Karen also log teak and sell it to Thailand, but Karen logging practices are reputed to be more protective of forest life than those of the big commercial operators.

Demand in Western markets for teak shows no sign of subsiding, and the market for Burmese teak will only increase now that the Japanese timber industry has deforested Sarawak and Sabah and will need new lands to plunder.

The Burmese teak trade is funding a war and devastating a jungle. At a time when human rights groups and environmentalists are calling for action against Burma, it may be that an embargo by the United Nations on the export of teak from Thailand, in raw or finished form, would be effective in addressing these urgent concerns.

Only concrete action from outside the region will be effective, since the junta in Burma appears immune to foreign opinion and the Thai enforcement system is rife with corruption.

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